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silver castor

A phial, cruet, or other small vessel, used to contain condiments at the table; as a set of castors. A stand to contain a number of such phials or cruets; – sometimes used in the plural. — Webster, 1882

Salad castors are coming into general use… they have bottles for vinegar and oil, and some have pepper and salt bottles. -1888 newspaper

A British 1877 domestic training manual for girls contained an entire section on the all-important cruet or castor/caster set. The word cruet, it explained, was derived from a French word meaning a vial for vinegar or oil, but was used to mean the vessels which held the various condiments used at the table during a meal. The use of cut glass or crystal vials for prepared mustard (in the days when the housewife made her own and mustard was widely used as a digestive aid), salt, pepper, oil, vinegar, and other spices – especially when presented in similar containers contained in beautiful display piece – showed that a woman took pride in her table. — Rev. Edward T. Stevens (editor), Domestic Economy for Girls (London: Longman, Green, and Co., 1877), 140-142.

The cruet-stand or frame kept the condiments close at hand in the center of the family dining table and helped prevent spills which would dirty the tablecloth. A metal frame could be of costly sterling silver or more affordable quadruple plate silver, a thin coating of silver over “brittania metal,” a white metal similar to pewter and made of mostly tin, with small amounts of antimony and copper. The typically round stand had a handle and spaces for four to ten containers, often sold separately. These included tall stoppered bottles for liquids, wide-mouth covered pots for thicker condiments to be served with a spoon or small knife, and bottles having shaker tops for spices. All had uniformly sized bases which rested snugly into the frame. Handles were plain or fancy, and some even had a bell for summoning the kitchen help! During the time of the Little House books, a silver plated castor set might cost from three to seven dollars, with individual replacement bottles from 10 to 25 cents each. The advertisement above dates from the 1870s.

An 1888 article about table settings included the following: A breakfast castor is a convenient addition although not indispensable, as many families prefer individual pepper and salt dishes at each plate and have but little occasion for other condiments. Breakfast castors are usually made with four bottles, for vinegar, oil, pepper, and mustard. They are in square or round shapes, the square table or standard being the most in favor. The bottles are either plain or fancy cut, or in decorated glass. The crystal has heretofore been preferred, but of late there is a tendency toward tinted glass, which seems to be coming more and more into favor. [Springfield, Illinois, Daily State Register] After World War I, the popularity of castor sets declined.

In Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder described setting the Masters table in Walnut Grove with a silver castor holding salt, pepper, vinegar, and mustard. In Little Town on the Prairie, on Mrs. Woodworth’s dining table upstairs over the depot, was a silver castor with an additional condiment, pepper sauce (tiny hot peppers in vinegar). Laura’s own silver plate castor set with six bottles is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. Although markings on the Wilders’ set haven’t been examined, an identical set was manufactured by The Hartford Silver Plate Company of Hartford, Connecticut, which specialized in silver and silver plate hollow ware, tea services, pitchers, cruets, and cake baskets from the mid 1880s until the late 1890s. Castor sets similar to Laura’s can be found occasionally on internet auction sites for around two hundred dollars in fair condition.

Laura’s castor set is shown here, with a detail of the handle style with its sunburst and sunflower design. Matching napkin rings, pickle servers, and other pieces were also sold in this pattern.


castor (LTP 20; PG)